Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 25, 2011

Illustrator Saturday – Joe Cepeda

This week I interviewed an amazing illustrator, Joe Cepeda.  You will find my questions and Joe’s answers amongst the illustrations.  I think you will find it interesting and helpful.  Joe received his BFA in Illustration from California State University, Long Beach in 1992 and also studied Engineering at Cornell University.  He is the illustrator of award-winning picture books such as What a Truly Cool World (Scholastic), Nappy Hair (Knopf), Mice and Beans (Scholastic) including The Swing (Arthur A. Levine Books), which he wrote as well as illustrated.  Mr. Cepeda has illustrated books written by numerous notable authors including Gary Soto, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Arnold Adoff, Monica Brown, Julius Lester and most recently, Toni Morrison.  He has also illustrated book jackets for many titles, including Esperanza Rising.

He was selected to illustrate the cover of Shaquille O’Neal and Reading is Fundamental’s Biggest Book in the World.  Mr. Cepeda received an ALA 2002 Pura Belpre’ Honor Award and the Recognition of Merit Award for 2000 from the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books.  His work has been accepted to the Society of Illustrators shows in New York and Los Angeles. In addition to his illustrative work, Mr. Cepeda is sought after as a public speaker to schools and other groups. He is the current president of the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles.  He lives in Southern California with his wife and son.

I asked Joe if he had a studio in his house or if he messed up the family kitchen.  Joes said, “For the last twelve years I’ve kept a studio about two miles away from home.  The picture is below.  Joe  went to Home Depot and bought a cheap door ($28).  He placed it over an existing easel.  It makes a great expansive drawing board.

Question for Joe: I notice you wrote and illustrated “The Swing.” Is this the first book you have written and illustrated?
Answer: Yes, as a matter of fact, I probably got my first book to illustrate because I had a couple of finished illustrations to a story I had an idea for in that initial portfolio. Arthur told me if I finished it, he would publish it. Of course, I still haven’t finished it… although, after too many years, I finally did give him The Swing. Even though I told everyone I wanted to write more, I don’t think I acted like it. I was very busy illustrating in those years and probably defaulted to just making pictures. I’ve changed that now, trying to put it all together. I’m a late bloomer.

Question for Joe: What do you sketch on?
Answer: I sketch my dummies on regular bond. I usually create a template for thumbnails, second drafts and final drafts. My favorite pencil for this kind of drawing is a cretacolor nero #4 or #5 (like the blackness of this pencil, good for scanning).

Question for Joe: Do you use a light box to re-sketch and clean of the drawing?
Answer: I clean up work digitally, everything is scanned. I used to erase in Photoshop, print out, then redraw on printed copy. Now I just redraw it digitally. I have wacom cintiq drawing tablet. I can draw right on the screen. It’s fantastic. I only use a light table for pen and ink work.

Question for Joe: Do you use photographs or models to help you develop your illustrations?
Answer: If I have to absolutely know what something looks like, I’ll look at reference. I avoid it as much as possible. I’ve quoted my college professor many times, “the quicker you move to research, the quicker you turn from pure invention.” I try and invent, even if it comes from nostalgia, or the stereotypes of objects… I look to do that first. It’s pretty easy to see when someone is working from photoscrap for rendering figures… it’s always in the lighting. I love Rembrandt because the lighting in his paintings emanates as much as it is cast. This is probably simplistic, but, when you rely on reference, you chip away at the magic of a picture… for me, at least.

Question for Joe: Do Art Directors ever ask you to change something you have submitted? Or do they let you be, since you have so many books under your belt?
Answer: Usually, all the “mistakes” are caught during the sketch phases of a book. Very rarely am I sent back something to repaint. If so, it’s usually something minor. The important conversation is in the beginning, before I’ve done a single sketch. I love to talk through my approach with an art director and an editor. If i going to alter my painting because I think it’ll better for the story, I don’t mind doing a prototype so there are no surprises later. I may have a particular slant that is different from what the editor had in mind (eg. I preferred to illustrate a book in an urban environment and I suspected that might not be what the author was thinking).

I think you will find the picture below very interesting. Joe sent us a copy of what he sent to his editor, Arthur Levine and Arthur’s suggestions back on the text.

Question for Joe:  Do you ever scan in an illustration to touch it up in Photoshop? Or play around with the layout using Photoshop?
Answer:  I have adjusted art in Photoshop, especially if I’m providing finishes digitally, but not too often, or too much.

Here’s the final Result.

Question for Joe: Do you use brushes, palette knife, etc.?
 Both, I’m very hard on brushes. Because I’m an illustrator, I have to dry things fairly quickly, so I use cobalt or japan frier, it can be tough on brushes. I just not that meticulous. I work harder at preserving larger brushes. The small ones just get beaten up. I use palette knives all the time, for mixing and applying paint.

Question for Joe: Your illustrations have so much movement. Is that something that comes naturally or do you put a lot of thought into how you can make that happen on the page?
Answer: Making a picture book is making a small movie. You need action scenes, as well as moments to introduce a character, close up shots, contemplative scenes, chase scenes, sad pictures.. etc. There’s some level of “action” in every image. Because a character is standing in the middle of an empty room, doesn’t mean there is no action there. Perhaps tilting the characters head to look over his shoulder offers a sense of fear, anxiety… tension. A clenched fists alludes to anger. There’s always action.

Question for Joe: How long does it take to do the artwork for a picture book?
If it was the only thing I was working on, a few weeks for sketching, a few months to paint. Of course, matching that with editor’s schedules, etc. is a different thing.

Question for Joe: Do you have an artist rep?
I do not have a rep, never have. These are unique times, though, maybe it’s time to upset that apple cart…

Question for Joe: I see a lot of ethnic diversity in your work. Do you think living in Southern CA has helped you to bring this into your work?
 I imagine it has, but people are not that different. The assignment tells me that the characters what to do. If the characters African-American or Asian, that’s just part of the story. I don’t try and guess the experience It does very little to alter the way I work. I paint funny, scary, thrilling, anxiety, houses, yards, furniture, clothes, dogs, trees.. and people. I see books about people of color where I think the illustrator was trying paint a world they really didn’t know… so they researched, or they guessed at it. That can feel contrived. That’s why I opt for inventing a house on a street in a neighborhood from the things I do know… unless the story tells me it’s a two-story brick house on Main street, in Decatur, with an elm Tree in the front yard.

Question for Joe:  Do you have a favorite illustration? Book?
Answer:  I liked working on just about every book that’s come into my studio. I don’t really like to look at the printed images. As great a job as some printers do, it’s just too far removed from my experience. They never quite look good to me. That doesn’t matter, though, because now it’s a book, not a painting. I’m partial to The Swing, Big Bushy Mustache, What a Truly Cool World, Tortoise or Hare… for different reasons. The Freddy books were one of my favorite things to do.

Question for Joe: Do you ever add two different materials when you paint? Example: acrylic over watercolor. Pastels and crayon. Or mix different types of paints together?
Oils and acrylic. I’m not real picky about the acrylics because I use them for under-painting mostly (and I really don’t like acrylics), but I am about oils. My preferred brand is Old Holland.

Question for Joe: Have you noticed a change in your illustrations over the years?
 Yes, some good, some bad (I keep wanting to sneak drawing more and more into my finishes). We all become too comfortable at points. I’m sure I’ve done that. When you develop your skill set, you nurture a certain confidence. You can be duped by that, though. I’ve always tried to surrender to the assignment, doing my best to create the most authentic images I can. I think I’ve done that more times than not, at least I hope so. I’ve never been comfortable with “style.” I spoke at a SCBWI conference last year and talked about opting for grace over style.

Question for Joe: Have you changed materials, paints, tools you use, etc. over the years?
 I don’t think I’ve changed materials all that much. Most of my picture books have been executed in oils over acrylic under-paintings on board. In my editorial work I’ve used mixed media. I did editorial cartooning for a while and got pretty good at pen and ink. I’m doing a lot of dry media drawing these last few weeks. It’s hard not to work to continue to work a little more digitally these days. Changing your tools is a good way to upset yourself… in a good way. I should have done that more often over the years.

Question for Joe: How did you get your first contract to illustrate a picture book? How long ago was that?
 Although only about 15 years ago, I did what illustrators used to all the time; I went to New York and showed my portfolio to art directors and editors. My very first meeting was with this guy at Putnam, Arthur Levine. He gave me my first book before I left town. I’ve been illustrating books since.

I just love this series of illustrations showing a Grandmom with her Grandchildren and the things they get into while Mom is away. They are from Peeny Butter Fudge by Toni Morrison (Simon & Schuster).

Question for Joe: In some illustrations it looks like you might have waited until the paint dried and then applied another layer. Possibly even added white clouds over the blue sky with a palette knife. Some information about the textures and how you achieve them.
 Yes, especially in the earlier books, I let a layer of paint dry, so that I could scumble over it later, sort of scraping lightly over the raised part of the texture. The overall feel of the book and my aesthetic choice as how I want to illustrate a book is set up from the beginning. I know from the onset if I’m going to mix colors wet into wet, or let layers dry and scumble highlights over the top… or a combination both.

Question for Joe: Do you use any spray over your paintings to help preserve it?
 I use workable fixative for charcoal drawings and such. I don’t spray paintings with varnish, protectants, etc. if they’re going to shot for reproduction to avoid the glare. I do varnish some oil paintings that are meant to hang on a wall.

Question for Joe: Which came first; your editorial illustrations or your children’s picture books?
Answer: The editorial Illustrations came first. I kind of fell into children’s books. I’m glad I did because there just isn’t enough editorial work out there. I jump at editorial work… it’s my first love as an illustrator.

Question for Joe:  Do you use different material if you are doing a book vs. an editorial illustration?
Answer:  Generally, books are oil paint over acrylic under-paintings. For most books, except the most recent, I create line by allowing the under-painting to show through the top layers (the oils), as well as for textural purposes. Most of my editorial work includes montage/found imagery/printed imagery. For both type of work, I print out an enlarged version of my sketch, transfer it using graphite paper, protect the graphite with a coat of clear matte medium. For the editorial pieces, I adhere the found imagery at this stage, protect it also with a matte medium. Then, I paint, acrylics first, then oils. Also, ink & colored pencil, charcoal and graphite, Dr. Martin dyes and watercolor and photocopies, etc. Pretty much whatever works.

Question for Joe: What do you paint on? Paper? Canvas?
Answer:  I do illustration work on crescent heavy weight cold press illustration board. I prep it with an acrylic gesso and then a neutral ground color (white/burnt umber/blue), also in acrylic. I also paint on masonite board for personal work.

Final Question for Joe: Do you have any tips on how an unpublished illustrator can get noticed?
 I really wish I could pass on some good pragmatic information. I imagine an agent or an art director could do that better than me. All I know is that I see a lot of work that isn’t great. So… be great. It’s seems silly to me to try to write a story about bullying because everyone is saying that’s what publishers are looking for. Can anyone really keep up with that? Maybe so, when you consider all the vampire books there are. I heard someone say about style, you don’t find a style, it finds you. You simply have to work. I’m still trying very hard to make good picture. It’s a very elusive thing to make a truly beautiful image. It’s authenticity. You don’t look outward for that. you look at your own marks for that.

Please visit Joe’s Website.  He has so many more illustrations over there.  Thanks Joe for sharing your process with us.  If you get a chance leave Joe a message.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. These paintings are stunning! The colors are absolutely breathtaking! Thank you so much for sharing, and I LOVED seeing a few of Arthur’s notes 🙂


  2. Thank you Joe,
    Not only are your illustrations vibrant, masterful and rich with story-telling, your words about the experience of having a “style find you” and the quest to “be great”, as well as your teachers comment of “the quicker you mover to research, the quicker you move away from pure invention”.. superb nuggets of wisdom for those of us dreaming to follow in your footsteps with our own stories and illustrations….sincere thanks, and thank you Kathy!


  3. Joe spoke to us at the Spring Spirit SCBWI conference in Rocklin, CA. He is a fabulous artist and wonderful speaker. This post was a real treat. His illustrations are so rich. Thanks!


  4. Thank you for the kind words, Donna, Tracey and Rosi … much appreciated. Rosi, that was a lot of fun up there in Rocklin- I look forward to our paths crossing again some time.


  5. I LOVE Joe’s art! Soooo Yummy!


  6. As an editor at Harcourt, I worked with Joe behind the scenes, and I can tell you that in addition to having a stunning palette and a true mastery of visual storytelling across a book (which he refers to as “seeing a picture book as a small movie” in this interview), he’s just an all-around sweet guy. Love Joe, love his books!


  7. Deborah,

    I am going to the SCBWI Conference in LA and I hope I get to meet Joe. His artwork shows so much fun, that I am sure he is everything you say. Thanks for the comment.

    PS: Are you at Harcourt in New York?


  8. Kathy,
    Thanks to both you and Joe for this illuminating interview! Joe’s work is spectacular–fabulous textures, perspectives, and energy! His amazing cover for ESPERANZA RISING always makes me feel as if I’m several feet above the ground . . . .


  9. Brilliant work, Joe! I could look at your paintings forever!


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